I downloaded this manga on a whim and it really paid off! Seven Shakespeares by Harold Sakuishi has a unique arc – depicting Shakespeare’s Lost Years between 1585 and 1592. As Sakuisi notes, in 1585, “We have a young man (with children) from a small village who had received no education sufficient to be a man of letters…and then we have the greatest poet of the age…” – so what happened?
The prologue centers on the enactment of Hamlet and the political powers for and against the theater. From there, the story moves to Liverpool in 1587 and focuses on a group of Cathayans (or Chinese people) who import tea and silk. There is a lot of tension between the native British and the Cathayans, including some terrifying mob violence. Li, a Cathayan teenager, features prominently. She has a ‘mark of the devil’ on her neck, doesn’t speak much, and can see the future. The Cathayan leaders use her for her skills, but also fear her because of her powers, which finally lead to her exile. Candidly, it is challenging to see how Li, with her ‘gifts,’ and the Liverpudlian Cathayan community fit with Shakespeare’s journey to eternal fame, but the story and the graphics are so compelling, I just went with it.
Meanwhile, Lance Carter, a young salesman, and his best friend Worth are struggling to make it – they have family challenges; they are Catholic, the dangers of which are, again, graphically and terrifyingly presented; and they have class barriers. While Lance is charming and well able to make sales, he feels like his true abilities are stifled and the economy is very uncertain. He stumbles across Li and takes her into their household. There is a charming interlude when Mil, their caretaker, begins to teach Li English. We begin to see her obsession with the moon, and this is where poetry begins to suffuse the work. Given Li’s past and her fears, poetry seems to be the best way for her to express herself to herself.
Plays emerge when the Saltmen’s Guild has to write and perform a play to gain prestige and attract new apprentices, battling it out against the bakers, shipbuilders, blacksmiths, cloth merchants, and especially the vintners. Lance is asked to pen the play, and the command is brief, brisk, and humorous. Lance’s efforts are greatly appreciated, but he is frustrated by his inability to express things as he would like – the head of Guild tries to comfort him by reminding him of his limited education.
Lance hears Li murmuring poetry to herself and encourages here to keep a journal – the first entry is “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed…” and thus the second (?) Shakespeare is revealed.
Overall, I really enjoyed this manga. It was incredibly disjointed, but each subject that Sakuishi tackled was compelling and I have a lot of confidence that it will weave together over the course of the series. He has the space to let the various political, personal, and religious storylines grow, and I am excited to see what is next.